High school rivals become Bobcat buddies

David Hutter

“I knew she was from Norwood, so I didn’t like her.”

Quinnipiac University field hockey senior midfielder Amy Cunniff emphatically uttered these words recently to describe the attitude she had toward senior Bobcat goalie Erin McKay when they played against each other on rival high school teams south of Boston.

Likewise, McKay used to harbor a similarly unflattering view of Cunniff.

“I thought she was a prude,” McKay recalled.

But two years later, McKay would be calling Cunniff something else – roommate.

As you might gather, their preconceived notions of each other proved wrong. But as the two QU seniors get ready for their final NEC tournament this week, they can now look back on a transformation that didn’t happen overnight.

As high school seniors in November 2001, they became personally acquainted with each other for the first time after becoming teammates on the Cape Ann Coalition team at the National Field Hockey Festival. After being placed in the same hotel room while playing in the tournament in West Palm Beach, Fla., McKay and Cunniff delivered surprising news to each other: each was committed to enrolling at Quinnipiac and playing on the school’s Division I field hockey team.

For Cunniff, the realization that she and McKay would be college teammates initially left her feeling apprehensive.

“I was nervous, to tell you the truth,” said Cunniff, a graduate of Walpole High School. Cunniff added the realization of being a college teammate with a player from rival Norwood High left her thinking, “Oh God, I don’t like this girl.”

While rooming together in Florida, their perceptions of each changed quicker than a shot on goal.

“I thought Erin was kind of stuck-up and [would keep] all to herself,” Cunniff said. “But that was not what she was like at all. She was the most outgoing and friendly person who got along with everyone.”

McKay realized that her perception of Cunniff as prudish was unjustified. Rather, she found Cunniff friendly, just quieter than she was.

“My first impression of Amy was completely off,” McKay said. “She was just really reserved and quiet. I’m an outgoing person. She was basically the opposite of me.”

After their time together in Florida, Cunniff and McKay no longer had any reservations about being college teammates. In fact, they embraced the opportunity to get to know someone who was close to home.

“I was excited because there was someone from my area who’d be on my team. We had a common connection,” McKay said.

“What I thought she was like, she was not like at all,” Cunniff said.

The two quickly connected back in August 2002 when they first arrived as freshmen on the Quinnipiac campus.

“Amy and I became friends right off the bat within the first day of preseason. From then on out, we’ve basically been inseparable,” McKay said.

“We [the whole team] did a bonding thing where we had a team dinner the night before the fitness test, Amy said. “A lot of the freshmen bond together, but Erin and I especially did because we knew each other from before. I lived in Ledges and Erin lived in Irma. I would always go over to her room and hang out and watch TV.”

The hang factor would then increase to the next level: housemates since sophomore year. So, in addition to all the hours they spend together at practice and in games, the friends also paint each other’s fingernails, eat nearly every meal together, and spend nights on the town dancing in New Haven night clubs.

“Amy is my best friend from the Quinnipiac field hockey team when we’re away from school,” said the ever-ebullient McKay.

Cunniff echoes that thought.

“Ever since freshman year, when we go home on breaks, we always hang out every day. She’s my best friend here and at home,” said Cunniff, the team’s co-captain and a marketing major.

McKay has been a four-year starting goaltender for Bobcat squads that won Northeast Conference championships in 2002 and 2003. She led the nation’s collegiate field hockey goal keepers with an 84.2 save percentage in 2003. Also, she has achieved All-Northeast Conference status twice, in addition to being named a Regional All-American and a Northeast Conference Tournament Most Valuable Player.

Entering the team’s last regular-season game against Rider University on Sunday, the 5-foot-9-inch history and sociology major had recorded four shutouts this season for a Bobcat team that has gone 9-8 (5-2 NEC). McKay has stopped 93 of 117 shots, which gives her a .795 save percentage.

As a goalkeeper, McKay usually has an unobstructed view of the whole field and, accordingly, tells her teammates where they are in proximity to opposing players.

“She’s always talking to us. If we didn’t have her, we definitely wouldn’t be as good as we are now,” Cunniff said.

Cunniff has played in all 76 of the team’s games in her college career. She has notched 10 goals and 10 assists for 30 points going into the regular season finale. But mere statistics do not fully reflect her value to the team, McKay said.

“She definitely has the best stick skills on the team. She’s a natural-born leader who has a tremendous knowledge of the game. When Amy has the ball, I know something good is going to come of the play,” McKay said.

Besides maintaining a team-focused outlook, McKay and Cunniff possess the ability to find humor in situations that might embarrass other people.

In the summer of 2004, McKay, Cunniff and two of their friends from Massachusetts were vacationing at Cunniff’s family house in Florida when they spotted an inflatable slide along the beach. McKay, clad in a bikini, slid headfirst down the slide. By the time she reached the bottom of the slide, her bikini top laid around her waist. Rather than being mortified, though, McKay handled the incident nonchalantly.

“I just laughed it off. What are you going to do? It was really funny,” mused McKay, adding that Cunniff snapped a photograph of her.

McKay and Cunniff will be graduating in May. McKay plans to earn a master’s degree next year and then teach high school history, as well as coach a field hockey team in suburban Boston.

With Cunniff looking to work for a marketing company, the duo concedes that they will most likely not be living together next year. But the two women vow to keep in touch by calling and visiting each other often.

“I won’t miss anything about Erin because I’ll never be away from her – ever,” Cunniff said.

Likewise, McKay said: “I live by the motto: ‘You can count your true friends on one hand.’ Amy is definitely one of them.”